David Bowie, who died of cancer on Sunday, will always be remembered for his willingness to explore new musical worlds and for his colourful and eccentric public identities. Working till the end, he released his last album, Blackstar on his birthday on Friday.
To those who followed Bowie’s career, it often appeared that his persona — or personas — tended to overshadow his music. From his generally androgynous image to Ziggy Stardust to Alladin Sane to the Thin White Duke (“the cocaine years”), Bowie dominated the glam rock universe, winning new fans and alienating old ones with his music.
But all through his various avatars, he continue to experiment and innovate, producing music that achieved iconic status – who does not remember ‘Starman’ or ‘Fame’? Underneath all that glitter and the imagery, lay a serious musician who was ready to stretch the boundaries of what was popular and acceptable. Looking back, it is not always appreciated what a huge risk Ziggy Stardust was.
David Bowie, or David Robert Jones was born to a waitress mother and a night-club owner father in Brixton, London on January 8, 1947. His voice was considered “adequate” but his dancing skills were noted by his teachers. Like most teenagers of his time, he was wildly impressed by American music, especially Little Richard and Elvis Presley; after hearing ‘Tutti Frutti’, he apparently said, “I have heard God”.
Bowie began to learn music and art at the Bromley Technical High School and formed his first band at the age of 15. That was the time new beginnings were taking place in popular music – the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were created around the same period. Bowie wanted to emulate the Beatles success but his first few records did not take off.
Learning dance, he developed a highly theatrical style which was to become part of him through his life. He brought art and style to his music and performances. His first hit, ‘Space Oddity’, released just before the launch of Apollo 11 in 1969, shows how he was already ahead of his times, with its futuristic sound effects and the story of an astronaut who gets disconnected from his spaceship:
round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do.
The theme of space and the stars continued to preoccupy him and one of his songs, Starman was used in the recent film The Martian, about an astronaut stranded on the Red planet.
There has always been an otherworldly quality to Bowie, and it is no surprise that his first film was called The Man Who Fell to Earth. He has appeared in – either in significant roles or as cameos – in over 25 films; his best known is Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, in which he played a prisoner of war.
Not all of his music was successful and while Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars catapulted him to the top, turning him into a genuine rock star, he remained an acquired taste. But there was never any doubt that he was a great musician, who was as capable of singing a traditional Christmas song with Bing Crosby as turning out a regular pop number like ‘Dancing in the Street’ with Mick Jagger and of course, creating his own special brand of edgy music.